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Eagle county sees red

Nathan Rodriguez
Special to The Vail Trail"It doesn't mean many epublicans won't get elected, only they're running into a headwind. If it was
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Editors note: This is part one in a three part series on the political climate in Eagle County.

For decades, Eagle County voted Republican. It seemed natural enough, with its long ranching history nudging things to the right.

And then, somewhere in the middle of Bush’s first term in office, things started to turn around. Eagle County, which voted for Bush in 2000, wound up voting for Kerry four years later.

But short of an about-face to the left, Eagle County has turned staunchly … unaffiliated.

“We did an analysis just the other day,” said Teak Simonton, Eagle County clerk. “When I took office in 2003, the county was approximately 37 percent Republican, 37 percent unaffiliated, and 26 percent Democrat,” she said. “Our most recent calculation now shows 28 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican, and 40 percent unaffiliated.”

It’s tough to say whether some Republican voters have jumped ship, or if the existing Republican base has simply been diluted with an increase in population.

In either case, with 2008 shaping up to be an historic election, Eagle County Republicans are hard at work to regain their foothold in the Rockies.

A favorite line of political pundits is that the 2008 election is tailored perfectly for

Democrats to take large gains nationally and in local races.

“Right now the wind seems to be blowing at the Democrats’ backs,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst in Denver. “Just how far any national wind blows down the ballot is where it gets interesting. Will it only be for major, top-of-the-ticket races or will it go all the way down? Clearly, that’s not yet known.”

The Republican Party has been active in Eagle County, appearing at a variety of fairs, parades and local community events ” either with a booth or a float, depending on the occasion.

So far, public response has ranged from “really successful” to “amazing,” according to local Republican leaders.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was scheduled to be in Eagle County on August 14, and the local G.O.P. is hoping the visit will boost their efforts.

Randy Milhoan, chair of the Eagle County Republicans said it was critical for the party not only to get McCain elected, but also to capture a majority on the county commission.

“It should definitely help things out when McCain comes to town,” said Melissa Kellogg Lueck, acting president of the Eagle County Young Republicans. “So far at these events, people have told us they’re very heartened to see passionate Republicans out there that the mainstream media doesn’t highlight.”

When asked about a potential uphill battle against Democrats nationally, Kellogg Lueck remained buoyant and seemed unfazed by any potential disadvantage.

Milhoan hedged his response a bit more, saying, “We weren’t quite sure what the summer was going to be like,” before casting his positive projection.

An across-the-board sweep by Republicans is unlikely, but that hasn’t prevented party leaders from putting up a fight in each contest.

“We’ve been offering as much help to everyone as we can, and obviously for us, all the races are important,” Kellogg Lueck said. “So we’re not going to choose one over another.”

Milhoan agreed, and added, “We’ve tried hard to have candidates without primaries in the upcoming elections, so that’s been helpful because now we already have the candidates identified without spending the time, money and effort in the primary.”

Next to the candidates themselves, the most important factors in any election are hot button issues.

“One of the things that’s critical now is energy,” Milhoan said. “I’m a little surprised the Democrats have held so strong to their position, but the fact that we’ve got so much energy capability in Colorado ” not only in the western slope, but also up around Greeley and Trinidad with methane ” I think that makes it the critical issue in the election now.”

While energy policy has dominated the Senate race between Republican Bob Schaffer and Democrat Mark Udall, it might not be the single deciding factor in local elections.

“I don’t think energy is the issue,” Sondermann said. “I think health care is on the list, so is state fiscal policy. I think voters have a significant list of issues.”

To address the laundry list of voter concerns ” and hopefully attract unaffiliated voters in the process ” Republicans said they plan on sticking to the issues rather than drawing things along party lines.

“We all have concerns regardless of party, so what’s important is talking about taxes, the environment, affordable housing, and encourage people to discover issues and see how candidates stand, rather than voting down the party line,” Kellogg Lueck said.

The political landscape is rapidly changing, fueled by a jittery stock market and rising food and gas costs.

Because they held power during most of the economic slide, Republicans started with a disadvantage, Sondermann said.

“Anyone with an ‘R’ after their name has a somewhat increased burden,” he said. “It doesn’t mean many Republicans won’t get elected, only they’re running into a headwind. If it was a diving competition, they’d have a higher degree of difficulty.”

Using a variety of polls and econometric models, the Web site Mile High Delphi, hosted by one liberal and one conservative, states it is “dedicated to predicting the outcome of Colorado state elections and U.S. elections with 95 percent accuracy.”

Interestingly enough, it finds that Republicans in Colorado are poised to fare reasonably well this fall.

In the state senate, as of August 7, the site projected Republicans will hold their current 15 seats, with two Democratic seats considered a “toss-up.” In the state house races, Republicans are projected to pick up a seat, while four Democrat seats are now considered toss-ups.

“We’re going to have to make a great effort to get our voters out, but also have some Democrats and unaffiliated voters come out for us,” Milhoan said.

Kellogg Lueck said she felt the party message was beginning to gel. “As election season gets into full swing, people will be more interested in the political process, but our chances are good, our message is good, and the stance we have on issues is relevant and applicable to creating solutions,” she said. “We’re not the party of ‘no,’ but ‘yes, let’s get it done.’

Milhoan said the Republican message to local voters would not only focus on energy policy, but also government transparency. “There will also be a lot of initiatives and referendums on the ballot, and we’re going to work hard and establish a position on those,” he said. “We’ve got nine candidates up for office, and we’re going to bust our butts to try and get every one of them elected.”

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com.


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